COMMISSION cites ONEOK for contempt

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Corporation Commission handed down a contempt order Thursday that accuses the parent firm of Oklahoma Natural Gas Co. of not cooperating in the commission's investigation of high natural gas prices last winter.

By a 2-1 vote, the commission approved a contempt order against ONEOK Inc. and two subsidiaries that accuses the companies of refusing to turn over documents that the commission had requested and of attempting to thwart its probe.

The commission fined ONEOK $500 a day for each day that the documents have not been turned over, beginning May 8. An administrative law judge had imposed a fine of $2,000 a day, but the order says $500 is the maximum allowed by law.

As of Thursday, the fine totaled $43,500.

Commissioner Ed Apple opposed the order and handed down a dissenting opinion that said it diverts public attention away from the commission's failure to adequately review the documents it has, including information surrendered by ONG.

``My refusal to sign this contempt order also stems from my abhorrence of the abusive use of powers exercised by governmental forces,'' Apple said.

But Chairwoman Denise Bode said the commission's ability to examine the records of a regulated company's affiliates is crucial as the state deregulates its public utilities.

``If we can't look at books and records, then we can't be sure that the commission's rules are being complied with,'' Bode said.

``The public interest is at stake here. We have to be sure that the public has confidence in the process,'' she said.

``The issues of affiliate transactions raised in this proceeding have direct impact well beyond this single case,'' Commissioner Bob Anthony wrote in an opinion that concurs with the contempt order.

``Comparing actual gas costs to market rates is a basic consideration. The transactions of ONEOK affiliates are a significant part of the market and they, therefore, must be examined,'' Anthony said.

ONEOK spokesman Don Sherry said the company is considering its legal options, which include a request for a stay and an appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Sherry said the order makes it appear that ONEOK is trying to obstruct the commission's investigation. But Sherry said ONEOK believes the commission does not have the authority to demand information from ONG's unregulated affiliates, including ONEOK.

Information requested by the commission, including documents from ONEOK Energy Marketing and Trading Company, have nothing to do with what Oklahoma ratepayers paid for natural gas last winter, he said.

Sherry also said that gas prices experienced wide fluctuations nationwide last winter and that the records the commission is seeking are not relevant to its probe.

``This was not an Oklahoma issue. This was a national issue,'' Sherry said.